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Reign of Henry III, Part 2 page 3


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But the Earl of Leicester and his associates, having advanced so far to satisfy the nation, instead of continuing in this popular course, or granting the king that supply which they had promised him, immediately provided for the extension and continuance of their own authority. They roused anew the popular clamour which had long prevailed against foreigners; and they fell with the utmost violence on the king's half-brothers, who were supposed to be the authors of all national grievances, and whom Henry had no longer any power to protect. The four brothers, sensible of their danger, took to flight, with an intention of making their escape out of the kingdom; they were eagerly pursued by the barons. Aymer, one of the brothers, who had been elected to the see of Winchester, took shelter in his episcopal palace, and carried the others along with him; they were surrounded in that place, and threatened to be dragged out by force, and to be punished for their crimes and misdemeanours; and the king, pleading the sacredness of an ecclesiastical sanctuary, was glad to extricate them from tins danger by banishing them the kingdom.

In this act of violence, as well as in the former usurpations of the barons, the queen and her uncles are supposed to have secretly concurred, being jealous of the credit acquired by the brothers, which had entirely eclipsed their own.

The subsequent proceedings of the confederate barons were inefficient to open the eyes of the nation to their real design, which was neither more nor less than reducing both the king and the people under the arbitrary power of a very limited aristocracy, which, had it been carried out, must have terminated at last in anarchy or tyranny.

They artfully pretended that they had not yet digested all the regulations necessary for the reformation of the state, and the redress of grievances; that they must still retain their power till the great purpose was effected; or, in other words, that they intended to remain perpetual governors till it pleased them to abdicate their authority; and, in order to cement their power, they formed an association amongst themselves, and swore that they would stand by each other with their lives and fortunes.

The justiciary, the chancellor, and treasurer of the kingdom were removed from their offices, and creatures of the barons thrust into their places; even the offices of the king's household were disposed of at their pleasure, and the government of all castles put into hands in which they could confide; and the whole power of the state being thus transferred into their hands, they put the crowning act to their usurpations by imposing an oath, which all subjects were obliged to swear under penalty of being proclaimed public enemies, that they would obey and execute all regulations, both known and unknown, of the twenty-four barons.

Never had men a more glorious opportunity of covering themselves with honour, and securing the gratitude of their country, than the confederates now possessed; but, instead of devoting themselves to establishing the liberties of their country, reforming the abuses, and correcting the laws, they selfishly preferred their personal aggrandisement.

The history of the twenty-four barons is the history of the English aristocracy as a party for centuries. We seldom or ever find them in opposition to the crown, wringing from it the surrender of its prerogatives, unless to arrogate those very prerogatives to themselves. In their shortsighted policy, little did they foresee that a power was gradually springing into existence which would one day call them to as severe an account as they had called their monarchs - the power of the people.

Edward, the king's eldest son, then a youth of eighteen, who, even at that early age, gave indications of the noble, manly spirit which distinguished him in after life, was, after some opposition, forced to take the oath, which virtually deposed his father and his family from sovereign authority. The last person in the kingdom who held out was Earl de Warenne, but even he was eventually compelled to submit.

Not content with this usurpation of the royal power, the barons introduced an innovation in the constitution which was utterly at variance with its letter and spirit. They ordained that parliament should choose a committee of twelve persons, who should, in the intervals between the sessions, possess all the authority of the whole parliament, and attend, on a summons to that effect, the person of the king wherever he might reside. So powerful were the confederates, that even this regulation was submitted to, and thus the entire government was overthrown, or fixed upon a new foundation; the monarchy subsisted without its being possible for the king to strike a single stroke in defence of the constitution against the newly-elected oligarchy.

The lesson to Henry must have been a bitter one, for he was the last person in the kingdom who had a right to complain. He could invoke no law which he had not been the first to violate. The degradation and restraint he endured was the just punishment of his perfidy and countless perjuries.

The report that the King of the Romans intended visiting England alarmed the confederated nobles, who dreaded lest his extensive influence should be employed to restore his family, and overturn their new system of government. Under this impression they sent the Bishop of Worcester to meet him at St. Omers, to demand, in their name, the reason of his journey; how long he intended to remain in the kingdom; and to insist that, before he set foot in it, he should swear to observe the regulations established at Oxford.

On Richard's refusal to take this oath, they prepared to resist him as a public enemy. They fitted out a fleet, assembled an army, and, exciting the inveterate prejudices of the people against foreigners, from whom they had suffered so many oppressions, spread the report that Richard, attended by a number of strangers, meant to restore by force the authority of his exiled brothers, and to violate all the securities provided for public liberty. The King of the Romans was at last obliged to submit to the terms required of him.

But the barons, in proportion to their continuance in power, began gradually to lose that popularity which had assisted them in obtaining it; and men repined that regulations, which were occasionally established for the reformation of the state, were likely to become perpetual, and to subvert entirely the ancient constitution. They were apprehensive lest the power of the nobles, always oppressive, should now exert itself without control, by removing the counterpoise of the crown; and their fears were increased by some new edicts of the barons, which. were plainly calculated to procure to themselves an immunity in all their violences. They appointed that the circuits of the itinerant justices, the sole check on their arbitrary conduct, should be held only once in seven years; and men easily saw that a remedy which returned, after such long intervals, against an oppressive power which was perpetual, would prove totally insignificant and useless. The cry became loud in the nation that the barons should finish their intended regulations. The knights of the shires, who seem now to have been pretty regularly assembled, and sometimes in a separate house, made remonstrances against the slowness of their proceedings. They represented that, though the king had performed al. the conditions required of him, the barons had hitherto done nothing for the public good, and had only been careful to promote their own private advantage, and to make inroads on royal authority; and they even appealed to Prince Edward, and claimed his interposition for the interests of the nation and the reformation of the government. The prince replied that, though it was from constraint, and contrary to his private sentiments, he had sworn to maintain the provisions of Oxford, he was determined to observe his oath; but he sent a message to the barons, requiring them to bring their undertaking to a speedy conclusion, and fulfil their engagements to the public: otherwise, lie menaced them that, at the expense of his life, he would oblige them to do their duty, and would shed the last drop of his blood in promoting the interests and satisfying the just wishes of the nation.

The remonstrances of the knights of the shire, and the spirited conduct of the heir to the crown, obliged the barons at last to publish a new code of ordinances for the reformation of the state, out the expectations of the nation were bitterly disappointed when they found that they consisted only in some trivial alterations in the municipal laws, and that their rulers intended to prolong their authority still further, under pretence that the task they had assumed was not yet accomplished.

The current of popular opinion now turned in favour of the crown - indeed, so much so, that the barons had little left to rely on for support beyond personal influence and the power of their families, which,, although exceedingly great, could not match itself against the combination of the king and people.

France was at this time governed by Louis IX., a monarch of the most singular character that is to be met with in all the records of history. He united to the abject superstition of the monk all the courage and great qualities of a hero, and what may appear still more extraordinary, the justice and integrity of a patriot, the mildness and humanity of a philosopher.

So far from taking advantage of the divisions amongst the English in attempting to expel them from the provinces which they still held in France, he entertained many doubts as to the justice of the sentence of attainder pronounced against Henry's father, the licentious and worthless John, and had even expressed some intention of restoring his forfeited possessions.

Whenever this prince interposed in English affairs, it was always with an intention of composing the differences between the king and his nobility. He recommended to both parties every peaceable and reconciling measure, and he used all his authority with the Earl of Leicester, his native subject, to bend him to compliance with Henry. He made a treaty with England (May 20) at a time when the distractions of that kingdom were at the greatest height, and when the king's authority was totally annihilated, and the terms which he granted might, even in a more prosperous state of their affairs, be deemed reasonable and advantageous to the English. He yielded up some territories which had been conquered from Poitou and Guienne; he ensured the peaceable possession of the latter province to Henry; he agreed to pay that prince a large sum of money; and he only required that the king should, in return, make a final cession of Normandy and the other provinces, which he could never entertain any hopes of recovering by force of arms. This cession was ratified by Henry, by his two sons and two daughters, and by the King of the Romans and his three sons.

But the situation of Henry soon after wore a still more favourable aspect. The twenty-four barons had now enjoyed the sovereign power nearly three years, and had visibly employed it, not for the reformation of the state, which was their first pretence, but for the aggrandisement of themselves and their favourites. The dissension amongst the barons themselves, whilst it added to the evil, made the remedy more obvious and easy. The desertion of the Earl of Gloucester to the crown seemed to promise Henry certain success in the event of his attempting to resume his authority, but he dared not take that step without first applying to Rome for absolution from the oaths and engagements he had contracted.

The king could not have made his application at a more fortunate period, for the Pope felt much dissatisfied with the conduct of the barons, who, in order to conciliate the nation, had expelled all the Italian ecclesiastics from the kingdom and confiscated their benefices. He proved himself willing, therefore, on Henry's application, to absolve him and all his subjects from the oath they had taken to observe the provisions of Oxford.

Prince Edward, whose liberal mind, though in such early youth, had taught him the great prejudice which his father had incurred by his levity, inconstancy, and frequent breach of promise, refused for a long time to take advantage of this absolution; and declared that the provisions of Oxford, how unreasonable soever in themselves, and how much soever abused by the barons, ought still to be adhered to by those who had sworn to observe them. He himself had been constrained by violence to take that oath; yet was he determined to keep it. By this scrupulous fidelity the prince acquired the confidence of all parties, and was afterwards enabled to recover fully the royal authority.

As soon as the king received the Pope's absolution from his oath, accompanied with menaces of excommunication against all opponents, trusting to the countenance of the Church, to the support promised him by many considerable barons, and to the returning favour of the people, he immediately took off the mask. After justifying his conduct by a proclamation, in which he set forth the private ambition and the breach of trust conspicuous in Leicester and his associates, he declared that he had resumed the government, and was determined thenceforth to exert the royal authority for the protection of his subjects. He removed Hugh le Despenser and Nicholas of Ely, the justiciary and chancellor appointed by the barons, and put Philip Basset and Walter de Merton in their place. He substituted new sheriffs in all the counties, men of character and honour; he placed new governors in most of the castles, he changed all the officers of his household; he summoned a parliament, in which the resumption of his authority was ratified, with only five dissenting voices; and the barons, after making one fruitless effort to take the king by surprise at Winchester, were obliged to acquiesce in these new regulations.

The king, in order to cut off every objection to his conduct, offered to refer all the differences between him and the Earl of Leicester to Margaret, Queen of France. The celebrated integrity of Louis gave a mighty influence to any decision which issued from his court; and Henry probably hoped that the gallantry on which all barons, as true knights, valued themselves, would make them ashamed not to submit to the award of that princess.

The Earl of Leicester was nowise discouraged by the bad success of his former enterprises: the death of Richard, Earl of Gloucester, who was his chief rival in power, seemed to open a fresh field to his ambition, and expose the throne to renewed violence. It was in vain that Henry declared his intention of strictly observing the Great Charter and even of maintaining the regulations made at Oxford, witli tlie exception of those which annihilated the royal authority; the batons could not peaceably resign the uncontrolled power they had so long enjoyed. Many of them entered into Leicester's views, and, among the rest, Gilbert, the young Earl of Gloucester, who brought with him a great accession of power from the great wealth and authority he had inherited. Even Henry, son of the King of the Romans - commonly called Henry d'Almaine - though a prince of the blood, joined the party of the barons against the interests of his family.

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Pictures for Reign of Henry III, Part 2 page 3

The Battle of Taillebourg
The Battle of Taillebourg >>>>
Interior of Westminster Hall
Interior of Westminster Hall >>>>
The Bishop of Worcester meeting the King of the Romans
The Bishop of Worcester meeting the King of the Romans >>>>
Escape of Queen Eleanor
Escape of Queen Eleanor >>>>

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